Port: Not the first time a culture of political bias at UND has been a problem

When institutions like the University of North Dakota allow a culture of political discrimination to persist, the public loses faith, and when our society loses faith in its institutions, we all suffer.

The drone hovers around a skywalk at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, ND on Friday, June 19, 2015. (Grand Forks Herald/ Joshua Komer)
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MINOT, N.D. — One of the most confounding realities of this moment in history is that millions upon millions of Americans have lost faith in some of our society's most important institutions.

The government. The news media. And, most importantly for this particular column, academia.

It is through that lens we must consider the unfortunate departure of Eric Plummer from his position as chief of police at the University of North Dakota .

Plummer, by all accounts, was very popular with students and good at his job.

"During his time at UND, Plummer has transformed public safety on campus, with improved lighting, more open spaces, improved social media relationships with students and the public, 24/7 safety escorts, vehicle service program and more," the UND newsletter for faculty and staff stated when he departed Grand Forks for a new gig in Virginia.


Why did Plummer leave North Dakota? In a discrimination complaint filed against UND , he stated he felt pressured by a campus vice president into divulging who he voted for in the 2016 election and was subsequently ostracized, professionally, when he revealed that it was Donald Trump . He alleges, in his complaint, that he was left out of work meetings and events and forced to operate in a confrontational environment.

“I was (looking for another job) and it was specifically the reason I was looking,” Plummer told reporter Adam Kurtz . “I was looking at leaving because of the environment.”

UND police officer Michael Pommerer, right, accepts a lifesaving award from UND police chief Eric Plummer during a ceremony Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, at UND. Photo by Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

Cara Halgren , vice president of student affairs, is who Plummer alleges asked him about his 2016 vote. Along with Cassie Gerhardt , associate vice president of student affairs and diversity, she is the subject of Plummer's complaint.

Halgren declined to comment, per Kurtz.

An administrative law judge has issued a preliminary ruling. We don't know what that ruling is but, per my inquiry to Plummer, it seems Halgren has appealed it. "I was informed of the ALJs decision on Friday and told on Tuesday that she was appealing the decision," he told me on Thursday, Aug. 5, declining further comment.

We could conclude that this situation, serious as it is, is an isolated one. Perhaps a product of this toxic and divisive political moment spilling over into the workplace.



Except, we have another recent example of a UND employee claiming political discrimination by the administration.
In 2016 Emily O'Brien was a University of North Dakota employee running for a seat in the House of Representatives. One of her opponents was incumbent Rep. Kylie Oversen , who also happened to be the chair of the Democratic-NPL at the time.

O'Brien won, but she says she paid the price for it at work. Before and after her campaign, she says her superiors at UND cultivated a hostile work environment around her because of her political affiliation. UND hired a law firm to investigate, and the subsequent report chalked the problem up to miscommunication and not bias. "The lack of clear communication appears to have left Ms. O'Brien to ascribe improper motives to actions and words of university officials," it stated .

O'Brien has since left UND — she's currently the Chief Operating Officer at the North Dakota Bioscience Association — and was just re-elected to the Legislature in 2020.

PHOTO: Rep. Emily O'Brien
North Dakota Rep. Emily O'Brien, R-Grand Forks, details the case for expelling Dickinson Republican Rep. Luke Simons, who she has accused of sexual harassment. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)

Is it fair to look at O'Brien's experience at UND differently, in light of Plummer's experience?

For another example of cultural problems at the campus, can we look at UND's atrocious handling of a controversy surrounding two female student-athletes last year. A situation where it seems the students, who were members of the volleyball team, were scapegoated by campus officials eager to placate a high-profile football player who was making a stink on social media at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.


There are more examples, too.

I've spoken, over the years, with many employees at the University of North Dakota who lean to the right in their politics and tell me they feel like they can't be open about their leanings.

One employee told me last year that during campaign season he was afraid to put up yard signs for the candidates he prefers lest a supervisor see them.

Another said she's pretended to vote for Democrats for years, so she doesn't "ruffle feathers" at work.

I want to tell you more of these stories, but I can't because the people who relate them to me love their jobs at UND and don't want to lose them. There is an attitude of resignation among these people. The bias against them in the workplace at UND is so pervasive and overbearing they don't feel like anything can be done.

Nor is this cultural problem isolated to the UND campus. I hear from other employees, on other campuses in our region, with similar stories to tell. We also can't ignore the hostility to diverse viewpoints on display from the North Dakota University System itself during the recent legislative session.

House Bill 1503 , introduced by Rep. Kim Koppelman , a Republican from West Fargo, implemented protections against political discrimination for students, faculty, and staff on state campuses. The lobbying campaign against the bill from the NDUS was ferocious.

UND space force signing
Bob Kraus, dean of UND's aerospace school, right, speaks during a press conference about the university signing a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Space Force on Monday, Aug. 9. Behind him Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, right to left, listen. (Sydney Mook/Grand Forks Herald)

“Despite the fact that our campuses have not encountered any substantiated cases of restrictions being placed on free speech, have had no speakers shouted down, no visitors assaulted, no ‘disinvited’ speakers, and no student complaints for at least the last 12 years, which is remarkable in the current political environment, there are still external forces that continue to perpetuate the notion that North Dakota colleges and universities are actively working against free speech and freedom of expression," griped Lisa Johnson , the North Dakota University System's vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. "While that may be true of certain coastal institutions, this is simply not true of NDUS institutions."

Perhaps Plummer might disagree?

And O'Brien?

And the student-athletes?

And the nameless faculty and staff who are too afraid of retribution to speak up?

Yesterday the University of North Dakota announced that it was the first academic institution in America to partner with the new U.S. Space Force .

Ironically, given all of the above, Republican Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer were key to UND securing that partnership. The Space Force itself was one of the few good ideas to come out of the Trump administration.

And there, at the announcement of the partnership, were UND's administrators, presiding over a campus that has an ugly culture of political bias against right-leaning students and staff, happy to celebrate the fruits of this Republican initiative.

We don't have to agree, but we do have to live with each other.

We have to be able to trust one another.

We need to be able to trust institutions like the University of North Dakota.

When institutions like UND allow a culture of political discrimination to persist, we lose that trust, and society as a whole pays for it.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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